‘Disappearing Earth’ author Julia Phillips reflects on her debut year, award shortlists, and what’s next

National Book Award finalist Julia Phillips spent nearly three years writing her debut Disappearing Earth and even lived in the remote Russian village where the book is set. The debut was an instant hit when it was published in May and continued to gain momentum all the way into award season.

She is now a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Additionally. she is on the longlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction & Nonfiction. The finalists will be announced early in November.

I wanted to catch up with Phillips about everything that has unfolded since her debut was published and what’s next.

What has your life been like since the book came out?

I feel like that is a question I’ll be better able to answer in a year looking back on it that right now. It has been the most exciting year of my life. It is my life dream come true. It’s been wonderful and joyful but also very bazaar, dreamlike, and strange. Every single thing about it is new, which is challenging. It’s a very emotionally demanding experience.

Especially after working on it for so long. What was the actual timeline of researching and writing it?

I applied for a grant to take me to Kamchatka to write a book in 2009. I got the grant in 2011 and spent a year in Kamchatka. The timeline of writing it was pretty short: two-and-a-half years. It was from mid-2014 to signing with an agent in 2017.

When the book was first published, were you paying attention to early reviews?

I paid a lot of attention to professional reviews. I was also looking at Amazon and Good Reads before the book came out and that quickly became a not very productive thing for me to do. I’m not sure if looking at professional reviews is a productive thing for me to do, but I do find it very educational to see how people engaged with the book and how they see it and what analysis they give to it. I looked at those then and I look at those now.

I’m sure you’ll be modest with this, but when did you realize you had a smash hit? Because everyone I know who has read it absolutely loves it.

I’m not being modest and am being straight up: I am thrilled that you say that because I ask myself if that is true. The whole industry feels so opaque. I am not sure what is a smash hit and what isn’t. Things I think are a smash hit are not what other readers or people in the publishing industry think are a smash hit. I don’t know how to evaluate it. With my own book, I am the least able to evaluate it. It’s like trying to look at the back of your own head with your own eyes. It seems impossible.

The experience of getting my agent was quite miraculous and special. That marked the beginning of this dreamlike experience that has stayed consistent all the way through. It became clear that the people who were representing this book and bringing out to the world and advocating for it were people who had a very good track record. That has given me a lot of confidence in the book. Even if it’s not selling the most or getting the most reviews, I feel like the team behind it believes in it and that means the most.

What has your writing life been like since publishing Disappearing Earth?

Creatively, I am not sure what this year has done for my writing. There is so much happening that it is hard to come to the page. I don’t necessarily mean so much is happening around me. I also mean so much is happening in my own head that I am over-excited or amped up and on this roller coaster of a debut year experience that it is challenging to calm down and reflect.

When I get overanxious, I tend to research a lot. I like to go deep. I’m the type of person that when I meet someone I have to pretend to not know who they are because you actually know everything about them because I go so deep on internet research. I do that compulsively. I do feel that I have read everything there is to read on the internet when it comes to publishing. Any experiences people would share, I tried to scrounge up and read. 

There is so much about this experience that happens to you professionally that open up after your book comes out that I wasn’t prepared for. For example, speaking opportunities for writers, even those who write fiction. I didn’t know that was a thing and it is interesting to learn about now.

What other information do you wish was out there on the internet for debut authors?

I think this is something that is out there on the internet, but I think it is helpful to repeat. No matter what publisher your with or how many books your selling, everyone seems to go to the same extreme ups and downs and that experience does not seem tethered to the reality of the book. I say that because everyone has variable experiences. Some people are runaway bestsellers and sell millions of books and others have sold dozens of books, and everyone feels those extremes. It’s worth saying over and over again because when you’re feeling that way, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one it is happening to. Everyone feels that way.

I feel like a lot of authors I have talked to have all repeated a similar sentiment that they feel very alone during their debut year regardless if they are surrounded by the most loving group of people.

That’s something that is very extraordinary to me because in spite of everyone feeling that way, everyone really reaches out to one another. That’s the beautiful thing.

Looking forward. It is award season and you are a finalist for numerous awards. How are you preparing or can you even prepare for something like this?

This situation seemed so impossible and so ridiculous that it is so unbelievably bananas and beyond my wildest dreams. It’s just so unbelievable to me. I mean, how do you prepare for a dream in which you’re flying? You just have fun. 

I’ve been looking up fancy dresses for the National Book Award ceremony and getting starstruck about being able to see LeVar Burton in person. 

This is pretty broad: what’s next for you? Not necessarily what you’re writing, but what do you hope 2020 looks like for you?

I concretely want to finish the first draft of the project I am working on now. I want to have a better handle on the balance of my professional life. I want to know what part of the day is writing and what part of the day is author-ing, which includes the promotional side of it. I want to travel and meet people. Meeting new people is the best part of this experience.

Before I let you go, are there any 2020 debuts that you’ve read and are excited about?

I just read Jean Kyoung Frazier’s Pizza Girl which was fabulous. I haven’t read them but am excited about Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Julia Phillips at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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